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Rockford roommates work to make the leap

by Daniel Bettenhausen / Chicago Blackhawks
Mark McNeill, Phillip Danault and Garret Ross hope to improve on their first pro seasons (Chase Agnello-Dean/Chicago Blackhawks).

With the Blackhawks' annual Prospect Camp concluding last week, many of the team's young players hope the impressions they made will have a positive impact on the organization. For others, they hope this is their final camp as they try make the transition from the American Hockey League to the NHL. Three players looking to make the leap are Rockford IceHogs forwards Garret Ross, Mark McNeill and Phillip Danault.

The three are fresh off their first full season in the AHL; all three played in at least 72 games and produced at least 26 points. On top of that, Ross, McNeill and Danault room together in Rockford.

“[Ross and Danault] are two guys I didn’t know too well coming into last season, but I had the opportunity to live with them and got to know them on and off the ice,” said McNeill, a 2011 first-round draft pick. The British Columbia native added: “They are great people away from the rink, and when they get to the rink, they work their butts off. Towards the end of the year, those guys showed a lot of improvement, and it’s going to be interesting and exciting to see how they improve as the years go on.”

McNeill tallied 18 goals and 19 assists in his first season with the IceHogs. While his offensive numbers were impressive, he did identify his defensive play as an area of improvement. Two-way play will be important going forward, especially since the IceHogs have been trying him out at both wing and center.

“I just have to come into [this season] ready to go, control my game, and be that much more confident," he said. "I've got to make another stride forward.”

If McNeill displays this versatility along with his grit (having been in a handful of fights last season), he may find himself on the Blackhawks’ roster sooner rather than later.

Danault, who was drafted eight spots after McNeill in 2011, also fashioned a solid rookie season with the IceHogs. The center prospect from Victoriaville, Quebec, tallied 20 of his 26 points as a set-up man for his teammates. In order to reach the next level, he has his sights set on where he needs to improve.

“I want to be more mature on the penalty kill," Danault said. "I want to have a big role this year on the penalty kill and defensively. I want to be a good third-liner, especially on faceoffs. I also want to show my maturity and leadership. My offensive skill could always be better, too.”

Danault emphasized the importance of bringing 110 percent every day, and that effort--plus playing to his strengths--will only add to his development.

While McNeill and Danault both carry the pedigree associated with high draft picks, it was another Rockford rookie who was recognized by the IceHogs coaching staff.

2012 fifth-round pick Garret Ross was named the team’s Rookie of the Year after posting 15 goals and 16 assists in his first pro season. The 22-year old Michigan native also owned a +12 plus/minus rating, best among team forwards.

“It was definitely an honor to be recognized for [my play last season]," Ross said. "While it was an up-and-down season for us, overall I think it went pretty well. We have a good coaching staff to help the younger guys along the way. I think that really made a difference.”

Similar to his teammates, Ross acknowledges that there are places where he can improve, first and foremost when it comes to taking penalties; he was assessed 74 penalty minutes last season.

“I bring a high compete level every day on the ice," Ross explained. "I'm out there battling day in and day out. I think that's something every team needs--players with high energy and toughness. I think [the team] expects that out of me.”

As far as his positives, Ross said: “I'm a two-way player; I'm responsible in my defensive zone. I can also produce when given the opportunity in the offensive zone. I bring a lot of energy and grit to the game. That pretty much sums me up.”

As these three budding players continue into their second full season with the IceHogs, they do not only have high expectations for themselves as they get closer to the NHL, they also hope the fans see their desire as hockey players.

When asked about what they want fans to know about them, McNeill went the hockey route and said, “I want them to see that I keep getting hungrier and hungrier, and that I want it that much more--to get to the next level.”

Ross restated that he wants fans to see his grit and tenacity on the ice.

As for Danault, he laughed and pondered, “I don’t know. You should ask Ross and McNeill… I love tennis!”

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